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How Broadway Royalty Sees New York Sheldon Harnick and Margery Gray Harnick create a book about the city

By MARK BLANKENSHIP


Margery Gray Harnick's photographs offer three visions of New York at the same time.

There's the city as a landscape, packed with buildings and treelines and sky; there's the city as a community, full of tourists and natives hustling on their way; and there's the city as a private story, brimming with details that have shaped Harnick's life.

Those overlapping identities define The Outdoor Museum, a collection of Harnick's photographs paired with poems by her husband, Sheldon Harnick. Taken together, the words and images ask us to reexamine how we look at the city. A mannequin, say, can be more than just a figure in a window. It can change how we see the people walking past it. Even a grimy puddle on the street can reflect a nearby building, making it look like a wavering mirage.

In a larger sense, the book also changes how we look at the Harnicks themselves. Margery has a long history as a performer, and Sheldon is the lyricist for Broadway musicals like Fiddler on the Roof  and The Apple Tree. Now, however, they're chroniclers of urban life.

Sheldon admits that creating The Outdoor Museum changed his perspective on his wife of almost 50 years. "I've always admired Margie's talents as a performer and as a painter, but the photographs were something new," he says. "When I got stuck as a poet, I would just come back to the photographs. They'd always inspire me to move forward."

Sheldon's poems range from lighthearted haikus about the subway to sober reflections on homelessness, and they echo the emotional diversity of the photographs. In fact, Margery says she was surprised by how some of the images impacted her. A mannequin head seen hovering in front of the old RCA Building, for instance, eventually felt autobiographical. "That's where I started on the radio, from the age of seven to 14," she recalls. "I was in that building twice a week. When I saw that picture, I thought, 'This is not only about this figure's head. It's about that building I know so well.'"

Of course, almost everything in the book has a personal echo, since it was created by a husband and wife. Asked how that relationship contributed to her creative process, Margery says, "There's a trust there that started a long, long time ago. I've always respected Sheldon's opinions, and if he felt that a picture didn't fit, I'd step back and try to see what he meant. But we pretty much agree on most things, which is probably why we've been together for so many years."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photos courtesy of Margery Gray Harnick